Critics of the proposed $450 million-dollar expansion of Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter are convinced state transportation officials are prepared to conduct a full-blown environmental impact study for the project.

They drew that conclusion after an Aug. 7 meeting with senior Oregon Department of Transportation staff and two Oregon Transportation Commissioners at the downtown Radisson Hotel on Southwest Broadway.

ODOT has already completed an environmental assessment. The agency and the Federal Highway Administration are currently considering the public comments received as part of the environmental assessment. They then have two choices: to issue what's called a "finding of no significant impact" or to order a full environmental impact study.

The Aug. 7 meeting was the third in which key stakeholders expressed serious concerns about the project ODOT has proposed.

The group called Albina Vision, for instance, is eager to rebuild the inner North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods decimated by the construction of I-5 and urban renewal projects and says ODOT's ideas fall short. Portland Public Schools has a different concern: Harriet Tubman Middle School, which the district just re-opened, sits adjacent to the project and would be even closer if the lane expansion ODOT proposes moves forward.

PPS laid out its concerns in a July 24 letter sent to U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

"Failure to evaluate the Harriet Tubman issues and the express acknowledgement that the issues are significant and should be evaluated, seems to qualify as "failure to consider an important aspect of the problem" and failure to take a "hard look" at the environmental consequences and reasonably evaluate the facts," the PPS letter said. 

"The FHWA must adequately address these significant environmental issues and unique student populations in an EIS and not simply accept the incomplete analysis and conclusions of the EA. Therefore, PPS is requesting the assistance of our federal delegation to require a full EIS for the I-5 Rose Quarter Project."

WW spoke on background to several people who either attended or were briefed on the meetings between ODOT and the various stakeholders, who in addition to PPS and Albina Vision included Metro and the offices of Gov. Kate Brown, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.

Moving toward a full environmental impact study would mark a major shift and give critics more time and leverage to shape the project to their liking.

Incoming Oregon Transportation Commission chairman Bob Van Brocklin says no final decision has been made.

In a statement, he alluded to a potential political complication: the Rose Quarter project was earmarked in a $5.3 billion transportation package lawmakers passed in 2017. One risk in delaying or altering the project is the money might be re-allocated to other needs.

"The Rose Quarter project is a designated project in House Bill 2017," Van Brocklin said.

"Accordingly, as we have told many of our Portland area transportation partners, the OTC and ODOT need to coordinate with the Governor and selected legislators on the question of what kind of environmental review to pursue. Those conversations will occur in September and then we will be in a position to discuss the project further."